In late 2020, I wrote what I was hoping would be a one-off column on the way Peter V’landys has run roughshod over the NRL in instituting a bunch of rule changes nobody asked for.
Barely six months later and I’m back discussing how the ARL Commission chairman treats the NRL like his own personal fiefdom in announcing a conference system to be adopted after expanding the competition to 18 teams.
In late April V’landys and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo tabled the idea that the NRL would permit not only a second Brisbane team in 2023, but also a second New Zealand team.
Ever noticed that any possible bad idea is supported by Abdo, but if it’s a good thing then V’landys features on his own?
That, in itself, is not a bad thing. A second Brisbane team has been long mooted and this website has covered one of the bidders. While a second New Zealand team could begin to claw some ground back on rugby union in the country.
A conference system also doesn’t seem too bad on the surface.
The NRL has long grappled with the issue of being accused of uneven draws because teams don’t play each other twice. In order to do so the season would have to be extended beyond 30 weeks which simply isn’t feasible.
A conference system would ensure teams in the same conference play each other twice and teams outside the conference would play each other once.
When organising a draw this makes sense.
However, there are a couple of issues with this that I’m about to get into:
- The supposed increase in rivalries
- A “fairer” draw
- An unbalanced finals series
An increase in rivalries
First cab off the rank is the supposed increased ability of the NRL to schedule rivalry matches.
Now, who has ever got to the end of a season and said, “that could have done with some more rivalry matches”?
It does appear as though the rivalry suggestion is an attempt at wrangling the Sydney clubs and having them agree with the NRL.
The more local teams Sydney clubs face, the larger the crowds. Or so the logic dictates. Whether that would actually happen is unknown because Sydney crowds are notoriously fickle.
But where the NRL’s argument falls flat is in the realisation the NRL itself controls the scheduling.
If it wants more derbies and local rivals facing each other, then schedule them. They don’t need to go through the whole process of a two conference system to do that.
South Sydney boss Blake Solly has claimed that 15 Sydney derbies would be able to be played twice a year.
First off, I don’t think you’d call Panthers vs Roosters a Sydney derby. Secondly, the NRL has already scheduled 12 of those clashes to be played twice this year.
The NRL and to an extent some Sydney clubs, are selling this idea as a way to increase crowds.
A Sydney-centric competition does not mean we will see larger crowds. You only need to look at the crowd figures this season to understand that.
Cronulla vs Bulldogs in round seven drew 7,420 at Kogarah on a Saturday night. Tigers vs Sea Eagles at Bankwest drew 14,095 on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Rabbitohs vs Tigers on a Sunday afternoon at Stadium Australia managed 16,134.
But the promises of 20,000-30,000 crowds every week is ludicrous. Especially when you consider the number one factor in crowd size is both teams’ performances.
When teams are travelling well, their crowds go up, when they aren’t performing, they go down.
This plan also doesn’t marry with the NRL’s idea to play at more suburban grounds.
Kogarah tops out at 20,500, Penrith Stadium at 22,500, Leichhardt 20,000, Brookvale 23,000, Campbelltown 20,000.
The only rugby league ground in Sydney that can cater comfortably to 20,000+ fans is Bankwest. The SCG does have a larger capacity, but it’s not a rugby league ground as many fans point out it’s a poor stadium to watch league at.
Stadium Australia is cavernous for club games and needs at least 35,000-40,000 fans for an atmosphere while Moore Park Stadium remains under construction.
The game couldn’t sell out suburban grounds when it was a purely Sydney competition, so why do they think it’s going to occur now?
A fairer draw
The fairer draw argument only looks at one part of the equation: whether or not teams play each other twice.
While it is true the conference system would allow for a more predictable draw seeing conference teams play twice and non-conference teams playing once, that’s where it ends.
A conference system heavily favours Sydney teams. Those clubs already do little travel unless they take their own games to regional towns or interstate.
Meanwhile the out of Sydney teams are already travelling at least every two weeks. A non-Sydney conference means those teams are travelling even moreso as they end up on the road for at least 13 out of 25 matches.
Looking at teams that have been historically strong in the NRL and a conference system already spells out a problem.
Melbourne are far and away the most dominant non-Sydney team of the past 20 years. Meanwhile in Sydney there has been a mix of the Roosters, Manly and South Sydney who have enjoyed extended runs in the top four.
So while Sydney teams would likely battle it out regularly for supremacy, you could all but lock Melbourne into the top of the non-Sydney conference.
Now the real issue for the conference system – the finals.
The NRL has tabled two solutions. Two separate, four team playoff series with the winner of each playing the grand final like the SuperBowl.
Or, an aggregation of regular season points into the current top eight system we have.
Looking at a regular top eight.
First off, if that’s the solution then it’s no different to what we currently see, so what’s the point?
You’d still have the arguments over weak draw vs strong draw.
As for the bastardised version of the American playoffs.
Those systems are far from perfect and often teams that are not playoff quality qualify due to their weak conferences.
For example, in the 2020 NFL playoff series, the Washington Football Team qualified despite winning only seven games and losing nine. They qualified because they were the best of a bad conference.
Meanwhile the 8-8 Arizona Cardinals missed out due to the strength of their conference.
The NRL may not be suggesting multiple four team conferences where this is more likely to happen, but it is still on the table.
In the 2020 season, five of the top eight teams were Sydney sides. So you’d be booting Cronulla out, despite them winning more games than the Gold Coast Titans under a conference system.
At the time of writing, there are currently five Sydney teams in the top eight. While that sounds the same as last year, the strength of a non-Sydney finals team would be a problem.
Melbourne is the only non-Sydney team in the top four.
The only other non-Sydney sides are the Gold Coast Titans and Canberra Raiders in seventh and eighth respectively.
Under the NRL’s suggested system you’d be booting the Dragons who sit in sixth for the Warriors in ninth.
Not to mention the fact that Melbourne having to play a mix of the Titans, Raiders and Warriors in the finals doesn’t sound the most enthralling set of match-ups.
Meanwhile for the Sydney teams, we would be looking at Penrith, Parramatta, the Roosters and Souths. Very nice for rivalries, yes.
But none of those rivalries would make it to the grand final.
Just imagine that. No Roosters vs Souths, or Eels vs Panthers grand final. No Cowboys vs Broncos.
Honestly, V’landys just needs to stop tinkering with the game. His rule changes have already caused carnage although he won’t admit it. The last thing we need is a new conference system that will cause more problems than it’s worth.